116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Passion Plays - the dramatic representations of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - began in medieval Europe as a way to teach a largely illiterate population the biblical story.
The tradition traces as far back as 1242 A.D. to the Cappenberg Monastery in Germany. But it was the version presented in Freiberg, Germany, that found its way to the United States beginning in the 1920s.
The plays' popularity came and went over the centuries before being revived in Europe in the early 20th century. Alfred E. Wolff began managing the original Freiberg play in 1911 until World War I, when he joined the German army.
After the war, he agreed to have brothers Adolf and Georg Fassnacht manage the family's Freiberg Passion Play. The production came to the United States in August 1928 for the dedication of the Krug Open Air Bowl in St. Joseph, Mo.
Cedar Rapids stop
In 1929, the production stopped in Cedar Rapids for Feb. 12-14 performances at the El Kahir Shrine temple. It was the seventh city on the tour and the second in Iowa, after Des Moines.
Billed as the Great Passion Play of Freiberg, the production was promoted as having its origin in that German city in 1264 'when a destructive plague struck the city and nearly wiped out the population.”
'A vow was made that if the pestilence were lifted, a Passion Play would be given by the citizens every 10 years. This vow has been faithfully and religiously carried out each decade, and the company that will enact this drama in Cedar Rapids will give the exact reproduction of the performances those years.”
And it was an exact reproduction - with all the dialogue in German and an English translation in the program.
Frank Waller of the Chicago Civic Opera was the production's musical director. As was the practice in each city, a local orchestra - the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra - and a large chorus of local people were enlisted for the performances.
The players also stopped in Dubuque, a place that had not been on the troupe's schedule but was added when Adolf Fassnacht heard of the area's similarity to his native Freiberg. He promptly arranged for the company's first outdoor performance in months at Dubuque Municipal Athletic Field.
The company was in Davenport in March 1929 when the Fassnacht brothers began arguing after New York theatrical producer Morris Gest saw a performance and persuaded Georg to bring the company to New York.
By October, Georg severed connections with the Freiberg players and began plans to organize a separate English-speaking company to produce the play. This group's first English production was in the Civic Opera House in Chicago in May 1930.
The players appeared in Burlington and Mason City in November 1930, performing in English after the cast began intensive English lessons with a German-American actor named Charles Lum.
Both of the brothers had to return to Germany when their passports expired, but Adolf brought his company back in May 1932, choosing Cedar Rapids for the June 15-18 premiere of their second American tour, this one in English. The tour included Josef Meier in the role of John, the Beloved.
At some point, Josef Meier - the one who had played John - reorganized the play, taking the role of Christ and renaming the organization for his hometown of Lunen, Germany. His first production was in Pittsburgh.
Meier said the atmosphere in Germany - where Adolf Hitler was coming to power - was 'like the calm before a summer storm.” He decided to stay in the United States. He became a citizen in 1933 and married a cast member, Clare Hume of Chicago. The couple had a daughter in 1938, whose first role in the play was that of the baby Jesus.
By February 1939, Meier's Passion Play had performed in Iowa at Fort Madison, Des Moines and Carroll before it stopped in Cedar Rapids.
The Cedar Rapids performance was Feb. 19-20 at Memorial Coliseum, with local church and high school choirs joining in the production.
The troupe returned to the Coliseum in 1944 during World War II. In an interview with The Gazette, Meier said the Passion Plays in Germany weren't openly suppressed by the Nazis.
'The Passion Play was associated so intimately with the people that it wouldn't have been, well, the intelligent thing to do,” he said. 'The Nazis found a better way. They drafted all manpower connected with the Passion Plays and made it impossible for the plays to go on.”
In 1937, Meier found a perfect, permanent home for his company in a natural amphitheater in South Dakota's Black Hills. The theater was easily accessible to tourists, and locals were willing to help support the theater troupe.
The Passion Play was presented three times a week from June through September against the backdrop of Lookout Mountain near Spearfish. It then traveled to indoor venues the remainder of the year.
Following the deaths of Josef Meier in 1999 and his wife in 2007 - and after 69 summer seasons in the amphitheater - the last performance of the Black Hills Passion Play was Aug. 31, 2008.
According to the Rapid City Journal, more than 10 million people had seen the play by then.